Friday, January 20, 2012

Santa Letters 2011

Once again I’m back with Christmas tales!  As I’ve discussed every time, I feel a little uncomfortable about sharing this but I’m such a big fan of the program that I do anyway.  This year,  I felt a range of feelings when dropping off Christmas gifts as part of the Correos Chile "Letters to Santa" program. Some moments were incredibly moving, others disappointing, some even dangerous.  Many of the families this year had members who were facing hardships or illness beyond what I could ever imagine, and furthermore, without many resources or help. Getting to the houses, some of which were located in neighborhoods like “la Copa” and “Montedonico,” proved challenging as the houses are not marked well, and its considered dangerous, especially for someone who has no business being there (ej. me.) The collectivo drivers were worried about dropping us off at some of the locations even in broad daylight, and at night it was much worse.   There was one crucial moment where we were sure we were getting led into a trap and saw no way out.  However, we found all the houses this year, and for the most part it was a success.

Getting to one of the houses. 
How it works: 
For those unfamiliar, letters to the north pole get set out in a box each Christmas at the post office and anybody can read the letters and decide to play Santa and fulfill the Christmas wishes for the family in the letter they choose. The letters may be written by children, on behalf of them, or sometimes by adults. When we deliver the gifts we try to be careful and say "Santa was so busy he needed help delivering some things,” just in case.

Many people are skeptical of doing this because they have heard of "scams."  The news has shown images of people writing dozens of letters and filling up their entire house with new electrodomestic devices.

Its understandable that some are skeptical, but sifting through sifting through the box, others were obsessively criticizing the requests and handwriting, “Look at this cursive! There is no way a 2 year old writes this clearly. Que sinverguenza! (shameless) This is a scam!”  Of course parents help kids write their letters, just because the handwriting is legible does not mean that the intent is dishonest!   Most kids, especially ones who don't realize the nature of this charity, shoot for the stars in their wishes- wanting a Play Station is only natural, it does not mean that is the standard of gift they are used to.  Adults also have needs and wishes and may see this as one of the only ways they might help make them come true, that is not necessarily a negative thing. 

But yes, I admit, certain things may happen that we may not consider fair. Some kids' letters might not get picked,  others may indeed be able to afford a decent Christmas without receiving help,  and many people do write more than one letter.  Correos Chile was making an effort in 2011 to number and cross check the letters to avoid duplicate gifts to the same house. This effort was well-meaning, though I highly suggest they use a computer to catalogue next year.  There were lots of letters falling through the cracks.

Personally, over the past few years I have had almost entirely rewarding experiences.  Every letter I have chosen has turned out to be at least seemingly truthful, and every recipient very thankful.   Honestly, in almost every case, once I got there I felt somewhat regretful that I didn't have more to give.  It has been very eye-opening for me in terms of understanding many things about hardship and Chilean society.

This year we selected six letters, and accompanied a friend on her Santa visit too. Of those 7 total, we know for sure that three of them also received gifts or food from someone else as well, because they had either sent more than one letter or multiple children's letters from the same family had slipped by unnoticed.  But also, 5 of 7 had one or more family member with mental or physical illness or disability, usually meaning medical bills, extra costs, inability to work, and often times the need for a caregiver.  

I went to drop things off over the week before Christmas. There was house we had a real hard time finding. We knew it was best not to go so late, way after dark, but did anyway.  The collectivo driver had a really hard time finding the block we were looking for and drove around, stopping to ask multiple times.  He was very concerned that we'd be obvious outsiders walking around this area.  Eventually we just had to get out and start walking, though we were approached by a young man very weary of our presence.  He insisted we tell him who we were looking for, and wanted us to follow him down an alley to lead us there.  Our gut instinct told us not to follow him, but he started to get mad and insist.  Pretty soon we gave in, and to both of our surprise, he actually took us to the right place. We were going to the house of a young mother whose husband was in jail for theft and she was unable to work because she couldn’t leave the child with sick, alcoholic family members.  All she wanted was Christmas dinner. When we finally got there, we didn't get to meet them, it turned out the child had suffered a bad accident that day and they were in the hospital.

The ocean looked so massive from here.  We're with a man who first helped us try to locate the house on the street, and still lost an hour later, we coincidentally ended up at his house asking his son to help us.   When we told him what we were doing he was so intrigued he came with. 
The very first letter I selected was written by a child whose parents were in jail.  We had such a hard time finding the house, walking around the area for hours.  We even called the family multiple times and they claimed they were coming to meet us at a centralized spot but they never showed up.  Finally we found the place dipping down over the side of a quebrada with the most AMAZING ocean view. Apparently the grandma had surgery that day and was sending the grandkids to go find us, but they were afraid because they thought their neighborhood was dangerous so they never left the front steps.  We brought gifts and a Christmas dinner, though we felt terrible because we brought a soccer ball for the letter writer, who I thought was a young boy, but it turned out it was a girl with a boy’s name!! Luckily I had a little lotion set with some candy that I could give her, but when she opened it she was obviously disappointed. 

The letter that reached me the most was of a girl older than myself that had many serious diseases.  She has been bedridden her whole life.  Her mother wrote on her behalf asking for diapers and food to stock up the pantry, and a doll that she could give to her 3 year old niece that helped take care of her.  This visit was emotionally hard for me to do, as the girl asked us to sit and visit with her on her bed.  I could not imagine a life like that, furthermore her father is expected to die soon and the mother cannot work because her care requires 24/7 attention.  

One of the most thought-provoking things about visiting this girl was that she would not believe that I wasn’t Chilean.  She laughed it off as a joke first then told us to stop lying when she was told I was from the U.S.  I wasn’t sure what this means, but I wonder if she has never met a foreigner before, and possibly doesn’t have enough interaction with people to notice that I am different from the rest.  She seemed confused when I asked her if she noticed that I spoke funny with an accent. In the end I felt terrible because when we got back home I realized I had forgotten to give her the doll for her niece.  Its sitting in my living room.  I’m contemplating going back with it, though it would feel a little awkward. 
The view from a path we followed.  In the distance under the bridge you can see where a truck carrying wine fell off the side of the Camino de la Polvora.  Neighbors claim that many people jumped down there to recover as many bottles as they can, while a group of people sat around in the wreck having a drink. 

Accompanying my friend to drop off her gifts was one of the most rewarding moments of playing Santa this year.  I was a little nervous about this because its her first Christmas in Chile and I wanted it to feel worth it to her and be a good experience.  It was beyond what I could’ve expected.  The letter was written by a little toddler that lived with her grandmother.  The grandmother was actually quite young, and was taking care of many grandchildren and her baby daughter as well, as the mother of the kids had drug problems.  When they came to meet us, the toddler ran as fast as she could with arms wide open to give me friend a hug and and spent the whole afternoon in her arms, giving her big sloppy, sticky, candy-cane kisses.  It was adorable.  They took us back to their house, which they were building in a toma (land taken over and claimed by a group of people), and the kids were so incredibly excited by the gifts.  They had been writing every year but this year was the first time they’d been chosen.  Some of the brothers and sisters had been chosen as well.  The grandma made a really sad comment, however, saying that she wanted to help out with drug rehabilitation but it didn't work out because more people want to keep using drugs than recover. 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Capoeira/A great investment

Capoeira is an art form that incorporates elements of fight, dance, acrobatics, music, and history, among others.  Its roots are in Brazil, where it is believed slaves taken by the Portuguese from Africa used some of the movements in resistance against their oppressors.  Over the centuries, capoeira has developed into an inclusive art form practiced all over the world as a form of self-expression, physical training, martial art, spiritual experience, etc...

Before this was about the best I could hope for: well-timed, unobstructed, with the full subject in the shot.

I have been taking capoeira photos for years.  Most of them are just fine, as I'm mostly focused on just capturing the photo at the right moment.   However, in terms of composition I actually prefer to have the full body in the picture.  Because of the way capoeira is normally played,  I would always get someone in the way of my shot because there are people standing around the players in a circle (called a roda), or to avoid this, I would have to crouch down practically between someone's legs and it became a struggle to get both players in a shot.  I would miss many of the impressive moves as players came so close to me they were out of frame.

Anyway, I finally got a lens to solve this problem, and I've really happy about it because to me it feels it captures the whole essence of the roda a lot better.  Its easy to get the players, the musicians, those watching, etc... the whole event.

Now... See???  Players, musicians, singers... ATMOSPHERE!  yayy

Well, I'm please at least.  Except for the ugly sky and grass this day that made me want them B&W.

The only drawback is that the distortion from the viewfinder is so mind-boggling that its only a matter of time before I get kicked in the head, completely unaware that I'm so close to the action.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Quick trip to Antofagasta

One of the most notable events in my life this past year was getting sent to Antofagasta.  I probably otherwise would've never considered going, and didn't expect much because in general people don't speak too highly of the city; I'm not really sure why that is.  It wasn't so bad, though it was more expensive and I definitely wouldn't trade it for Valparaiso.   

Since I didn't really have a choice in the matter I was just glad to be able to go on a little trip and get to see something new.  It didn't hurt that one of my boyfriend's best friends was living there at the time so I had someone to show me around, and I also got to meet many other people, including a few other young and interesting foreigners, while I was there.  

La portada.  It's pretty, though I don't get the hype.
I surprisingly liked Antofagasta.   It felt like Valparaiso a lot in terms of the layout, especially at night, though the plan was actually much bigger.  It took quite a while to get from one end to the other.

I loved the cool buildings in Antofagasta.
The ones in the city center had such amazing colors, windows, and decorations. 

Look at the gorgeous materials used here! 

Most interesting find, at the museum house in the train yard, was this old poster of mug shots. 

Check out the hilarious nicknames.

All aboard!

Awesome murals on this building play eye and mind tricks on you. 

Of course we stopped by the Huanchaca ruins, where they used to process silver extracted in Bolivia.  The state of the ruins was surprising to me given that this site only shut down around the turn of the century, houses on my street were built then and they look nothing like this! 

Probably the best part of the entire trip was that, for the first time in my life* I got to stay alone in a nice hotel.  I normally stay in hostals when I travel, and I am usually with other people. This time, however, I found myself with a brand new hotel room with two huge beds, a flatscreen TV, a nice view, and an elegant bathroom full of marble and a futuristic, pressurized shower!!  Nothing like the little drip of fixed-temperature water I get in Valparaiso!  

Staying in such a nice place, I almost didn't know what to do with myself.  I literally ditched out on the bars to take the worlds longest shower and watch TV.  And, between you and me, I may or may not have spent a while jumping back and forth between the beds.  

*The real first time I stayed in a hotel room by myself was horrifying.  I had booked the room in Sao Paulo online in order to take a taxi straight there from the airport.  However, the hotel turned out not to be, well...  geared towards backpackers, or, tourists at all.  Long story short, I didn't get much sleep on top of the beach towel I set on top of the comforter in my wall-to-wall-mirrored room off a dark alley. Good times!  

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

There's no place like home

One of my best guy friends got married a few months ago and I was lucky enough to get that time off to go back to the US for the wedding in Philadelphia.   I have never been there before, though I loved the vibe of downtown - it reminded me a lot of Minneapolis in the summer, though with even more weird random people wandering around.   Everybody was quite friendly.

The wedding was absolutely gorgeous and I was really happy to be exploring a new city with so many friends.  Despite it being an out of town wedding, over a dozen of my best friends also flew out, along with many other acquaintances and relatives of the groom that I have met over the years.  Staying in a fancy hotel with everyone for the weekend was incredibly entertaining.

The highlight of the wedding itself was actually during the ceremony.  The groom had selected two best men, both of them also good friends of mine.   One of them just has the type of personality that seems perfect for the job- he's completely on top of the challenge and responsibilities of being a best man.  The other, well... doesn't necessarily emit that vibe, and was the butt of many jokes in the time leading up to the wedding.  People were constantly teasing him... "just don't screw it up!"   It may have been a jinx.
During the wedding everything was going fine until the priest instructed the best men to hand over the rings to the groom.  The church was so silent you could hear a pin drop.

... So it was really easy to hear the ring drop.

All of the wedding guests tried not to giggle as the best men, groom, and priest scrambled to get the ring back and continue with the ceremony.  In retrospect, I think everyone saw it coming.  The bride laughed it off as well, and later during the reception, he poked fun at himself for what happened before delivering an incredibly touching and heartfelt toast.

I had so much trouble expressing this to him, and of course I'm sure it just sounded like one more person trying to console him after an embarrassing moment, but I thought that little unexpected mistake added so much character and humor to the event that it made it really special.  His response was even funnier, as he said that the sound of the ring hitting the church floor was actually a relief considering that he was starting to freak out when he opened the ring box and saw nothing inside!

For the rest of my trip I just hung around Minnesota, running, biking, kayaking, boating on Lake Minnetonka, and hitting up all the restaurants I could.  Chipotle probably saw a spike in their sales for the weeks I was back.   I also tore through bags of candy corn and Andes mints cookie monster style, washing them down with all the wonderful drinks and juices that you just cant get in Chile.

It was great to get to see my parents, sister, grandma and other friends and relatives.  Though it's not entirely true, it's always strange to have the feeling that almost no time has passed and so little has changed.  I feel like my life back in Minnesota merely goes on "pause" every time I'm away.

Oh, and there is no better way to appreciate Minnesota than hitting up the State Fair.   There is nothing that is beyond frying on a stick!
Giant slide at the State Fair.  I'm racing some friends. You can hardly see me as I'm currently in last place.  They cheated. 

Mall of America never ceases to impress me with its size.  Its huge! So are the decorations.
I don't really like beer, but how many friends do you think I could invite over for a drink with this? 

OH YES!   Cupcake from a place very close to my heart... and stomach.  And my all-time favorite, A&W Cream Soda. 

I'm not too patriotic in the traditional sense, but this gas station sure is! 

I <3 Minnesota

Mango waffles to die for. Victor's 1959 Cafe.  Go there.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Mil Tambores por la Educacion

As everyone knows, 2011 was a big year for protests about the educational system in Chile.  In August, a parade was held in support of the students' movement with the intention of joining the community together to support the movement in peaceful protest and gain some media exposure.  The name was called "Mil Tambores por la Educacion," modeled off (but not itself) the tradition of the yearly Mil Tambores parade which takes place later in the spring (2011, 2010, 2009, 2008).  However, while still comprised of many drumming groups and artists of all types, the main focus was the educational cause, and a large percentage of parade participants could be see carrying, wearing something that expressed support for the students' movement or disapproval of the current government and educational system.  

I didn't participate in this parade even though several groups I'm involved with did, because I actually had a commitment to... dance at a halftime show.  (I bet at least 10 of my readers just spit out a drink or choked).   Yes, really.

So I quickly scoped out the parade, camera in hand, before I had to go get ready.   However, opposite of everything I've ever experienced in Chile, they were running more than an hour ahead of schedule and I missed my event all together.   Go figure....    Anyway, here go the photos:

People hung out windows and balconies banging pots and pans in support.  This form of protest is called "cacerolazo."

The Escuela de Samba de Valparaiso leads the parade.  Can't have "Mil Tambores" without the tambores!

A float uses President Piñera's hilarious gaffe "Marepoto" (instead of Maremoto=tsunami, he said marepoto, poto=butt) in their message about the poor quality of the educational system. 

An artist shows of his skills with the contact ball.

Supporters painted their bodies with designs and political messages following the Mil Tambores tradition.

A girl spins some flags, known as "swing".  

Masked individuals support a message for safe and legal abortion on their underwear.  After this the crowd got mooned with a message about the quality of education in Chile. 

Hundreds of students and others supporting their cause followed with homemade signs. 

Saint Peter's Day Procession/Fiesta de San Pedro

El dia de San Pedro, patron saint of the fishermen, is June 29th, though it is celebrated in different ports along Chile every year on various days.   In Valparaiso, fisherman honor the saint, asking him to protect them and their success for the upcoming year, by carrying out a procession of small boats along the coast following a statue of St. Peter.  The boats dock at one of the piers and carry the statue along a path through the city and up towards one of the historic churches.  In this procession there are a number of cultural groups which dance and play music along the way, wearing masks and various types of colorful traditional or celebratory costumes.

I don't have any particularly interesting commentary from this year's festival, though I will leave you with a number of photos to show off some of their beautiful and interesting clothing.

Noches Luminosas 2011

This year a friend who lives in Cerro Concepcion let me know about a great event going on in Cerro Alegre and Concepcion.  The idea was to incourage people to go out to local venues in the evening and take a stroll around the hills.  Many of the shops and restaurants in these two hills offered special deals and decorated their windows and storefronts with displays and other light-up creations.   

I thought the idea behind the weekend was great, however there wasn't enough creativity and participation in terms of decorations.  Although one restaurant, which I wish I remembered the name of to give them credit, surpassed expectations by having musicians and performances on the balcony and in front of the store, bringing an especially lively vibe to the area.  

My favorite storefront decorations

Sharing this one for of my love for bicycles and Epif, even if they did just raise their prices... 

I hope next year's Noches Luminosas surpasses 2011's event and my expectations as well.  

Back from the dead...

Perhaps you have noticed my absence (perhaps not), but I haven't been updating much this past year.  This has been due to a) life and b) my anti-SEO motive as I wanted a chance to review and clean up the site because I didn't really want any conflicts with work.  Now, summer has come and I'm finally getting around to a number of things I've been putting off,  including publishing all my back-entries of cultural events I've been saving for a few months.   I think from now on, my blog will be geared more towards these events because they're really what I enjoy the most about living here and I've always enjoyed sharing my snapshots with the community.

One thing I typically haven't shared too much on here is my personal life and hobbies, which I tend to either downplay or not give its fair share on here.  That may or may not change.

I will be updating the overdue posts over the next day or so, please forgive the blog spam and my failure to officially invite you to attend.  I am also sorry I didn't photograph this year's Festival Teatro Container or Invasion Callejera, without a doubt one of my favorite Valparaiso festivals, run by Tuga, an acquaintance and hilariously talented mime (mentioned previously).  Oops, last year I photographed but didn't post!

Tuga in the Plaza Victoria, December 2010. 

An artistic home base for the 2011 Festival Teatro Container in the plaza Sotomayor. 

In exchange, please accept my recommendation for the upcoming Festival de las Artes, the festival which seems to have replaced Carnivales Culturales.  It'll take place the weekend of January 27th.  Be sure to check out the program if you wish to attend the performances and expositions.

P.S.  I am very sorry to perhaps be stepping on the toes (content) of other bloggers' posts, I honestly haven't kept up well recently.   If and when I do post about something you've covered leave the link in the comments so people can get back to your post as well!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Netflix letdown...

It was true, after my last post Netflix started getting in the news because they were going to, and did, start operating in Chile for online viewing. I prefer to stream rather than download, and I had other adequate movie-watching ways available and convenient until recently. Then today I got lured back into Netflix when I saw somewhere online that Police, Adjective, a movie I'd been trying to find, was on Netflix.

So I clicked over, and it turns out Netflix is, first of all, reasonably enough priced that I would consider subscribing, and more importantly, letting you do a one-month free trial!

Unfortunately, my old queue was not saved, but I spent a while getting used to the new (queue-less?) site and ranking all my preferences and favorite movies so that it would give me some good suggestions. However, when I was finally ready to get down to movie-watching, it turned out Police, Adjective was not on Netflix after all.... and neither were 66 of the 70 movies on my "to-see" list!! I do have a taste in movies skewed towards independent films, though not all 66 titles were obscure names.... in fact some of them were big names from the 2008 Oscars, etc.. stuff sufficiently heard-of and old-enough to have gotten them in the system by now.

Looks like with my new Netflix account, I won't be bored ever again. until Tuesday.

(Edit: I totally forgot to include this, but when I tried to watch one of my four available movies... the website kept making me install, reinstall, and re-reinstall some driver and I never got the online viewing to work anyway. Summary of my experience: TOTAL FAIL)